The only time Naomi, a trans sex worker whose name has been changed to protect her identity and safety, tried to report a violent date to the police she was made to feel like she’d been asking for it because of her line of work. It’s a common experience and one of the reasons why Red Umbrella Day is so important, she says.
“Those first moments are really important and they affect you,” she says. “I still don’t think I would say anything to them [if I needed to again].”
Naomi ran away from home at a very young age. Ending up on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, she says she started doing street-based sex work more so for a place to sleep – which terrified her – and less for the money.
“Eventually I started to realize this was a way I could control my situation,” she says. She used that money to transition off the street and into escort work.
PEERS Victoria, an organization run by and for sex workers, educates service providers in the city on how to reduce the stigma surrounding sex workers and advocate for them. One of the main aspects of its two-woman Violence Prevention Support Team is running the Bad Date Sheet, a way for sex workers to anonymously report anything from a creepy feeling to acts of violence and help keep others safe.
|The Violence Prevention Support team at PEERS Victoria estimates there are anywhere between 2,000 to 3,500 sex workers in the region. (Provided by PEERS Victoria)|
They estimate there are anywhere between 2,000 to 3,500 sex workers in the city and say only about 20 per cent of them are outside workers with the remaining 80 per cent working within escort agencies, massage parlours or doing cam-work and phone sex.
Emma, whose name has also been changed to protect her identity and safety, works in a massage parlour. She says she got into the industry because she didn’t want to get a second job.
“I can do this and make double the money I could waitressing,” Emma says.
Both women agree that the work isn’t dangerous, it’s the way people treat sex workers that makes it dangerous.
With the lack of meaningful supports out there, sex workers can be isolated – especially if they’re transgender, Indigenous or disabled, all communities that have a historically turbulent relationship with police.
“[The violence] stems from people not feeling like they can report it, so people who want to inflict violence … go for someone who’s in the grey area of the law,” says Emma.
On Dec. 17, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a silent march heads from Bastion Square to Victoria’s City Hall to show support and fight the stigma that surrounds the industry.
“It’s not this victimizing, rock bottom [profession],” says Emma. “But it’s also not this glamorous thing – it’s just a job.”
Red umbrellas have become a symbol of sex workers, first used in Italy to create the ‘Prostitute Pavilion’ art installation. In 2005, the International Committee of the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe adopted the red umbrella as a symbol of resistance to discrimination and the marches began to take place internationally.